Raising the roof for Sukkot

Mark Abrams works on his family’s sukkah at their University City home.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Mark Abrams’ family eats in style. His dining room has a beautiful chandelier, a working ceiling fan and attractive lighting. There’s even a sink to wash in nearby. None of that seems unusual of course – until you consider that’s it’s only going to be in use for about a week.

“It’s my favorite holiday,” said the 57-year-old University City resident. “It’s a beautiful time of year. The weather is always nice and it’s around my birthday. If I see something that would look good in the sukkah, I just use it.”

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Sukkah season is indeed upon us. Elaborate or simple, easy-to-construct or time-consuming, decorated or plain, every year these religiously mandated temporary structures begin popping up all around the community as Jews celebrate both the ancient harvest festival and a remembrance of 40 years spent wandering the desert.

According to Chabad’s website, there are a number of requirements for building a proper sukkah. The structure must be sited without obstructions, such as trees or overhangs, which block the sky. A sukkah must be at least 22.4 by 22.4 inches in area with walls a minimum of 32 inches high. Existing structures can be used as long as they are roofless and an acceptable sechach, the covering, can be applied. Existing walls from a permanent structure can also be used as sides of the sukkah. The sechach is considered proper only if composed of unfinished vegetable matter such as bamboo poles, evergreen branches or reeds. Narrow strips of unfinished lumber can also be used. A good sechach should provide more shade than sun with its elements spread evenly showing no gap bigger than 9.6 inches. The entire structure may not be taller than 30 feet.

Abrams and his wife Jill, who attend services at Agudas Israel and U City Shul, say they don’t mind the chore. He said he’s always been handy and likes to hook up everything from the temporary sink to the ceiling fan and decorative chandelier, the latter being a festive touch he added two decades ago and has included ever since. This year he had to buy a used one off Craigslist. Other amenities include a tarp rigged to be quickly rolled on top should it rain.

Abrams still does a lot of the work himself but, as they’ve aged, his children have acquired more duties as well. His two youngest sons are now 15.

He’s also picked up a few pointers over the years in the fine art of sukkah building. His present material of choice is plywood and lumber although he’s used materials as exotic as aluminum piping in the past.

“The first one I made was canvas,” he laughed. “It blew over into the other yard so I said we’re not doing that anymore.”

The Abrams are proof that a good sukkah makes for good neighbors. The family likes to eat meals not only in their own sukkah, which seats about 20 and abuts the side of their home, but also in the freestanding structure their neighbors, the Kents, put up. That kind of socializing is commonplace around Sukkot as people break their normal routines to eat out of doors.

“In the past, we used a different one but it didn’t hold up,” said Zipora Kent, 33 of last year’s temporary dwelling. She said that she and husband, Meir, 40, congregants at U City Shul, invested in a stronger sukkah this year hoping it would last for some time to come. This year’s incarnation even has indoor/outdoor carpeting.

She remembers growing up eating in the sukkah with her parents.

“It means family and tradition,” she said. “This whole time of year really culminates with Sukkot and it’s a good way of ending that season. It brings everything together.”

For Leiba Levine, family and tradition are key parts of sukkah life. The Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy teacher said her family has been putting up a sukkah since they lived in Lawrence, Kan. Each year she and husband Ken have their children put handprints up on the wall and she likes to see how the prints have grown over the years.

“The first year we were in St. Louis, we did an arch with our handprints,” she remembered. The Levines have been here since 2003.

That’s not the only tradition for the family, who reside in unincorporated St. Louis County. Visitors to the Levines’ sukkah sign the 2x4s for posterity. And each year, the wood is rotated so different signatures are visible. She said it helps the family keep in mind the memory of old friends and maintain continuity even if some aspects of the sukkah itself change.

“Some years it’s been grand with lights and everything,” she said. “Sometimes it’s pretty tame.”

“Last year, we just had trouble keeping it up,” she added, recalling the storms and wind that struck the area.

Nature can sometimes be an obstacle. Levine said that when she lived in California she actually slept in the sukkah – something she would consider a challenge in Missouri’s unpredictable weather.

The Levines are also part of “Sukkot in the Neighborhood,” a program at Congregation Shaare Emeth, which encourages the attendance and hosting of sukkah parties. The concept was already in operation when the Levines arrived in St. Louis but Leiba Levine had headed a similar idea in Kansas.

For the family, hosting parties and meeting people are all part of the sukkah experience.

“Even non-Jewish neighbors and non-Jewish friends love it,” she said. “It signals the new season and brings people together before they all go and hibernate. It’s nice.”

Shaare Emeth’s idea may bring people to the sukkah but Chabad of Chesterfield works to bring the sukkah to people. The group’s traveling sukkah, which moves from place to place on a trailer, is an idea the organization premiered two years ago. Rabbi Avi Rubenfeld said that as non-traditional as the concept may seem, it’s actually very old. In fact, stories from the Talmud tell of a traveling sukkah on a camel or a boat.

Rubenfeld said “sukkahmobiles” are now common in larger cities like New York.

“It’s really a dial-a-sukkah party,” Rubenfeld said, recalling last year’s participants. “There were people from all walks of life, across the spectrum of the community that it attracted.”

Some of those using the service already have a sukkah of their own but not one big enough to host the party they’d like.

“One of the interesting things we’ve found is that a tremendous amount of non-Jews are aware of Sukkot and are excited to see it and they ask questions,” Rubenfeld said. “It’s really a phenomenal educational event. Wherever we go, people are learning about it.”

Chabad is even sweetening the deal by hosting a contest. The largest sukkah party to use the mobile structure will win two Cardinals box seat tickets. Participants can sign up online under the “youth” tab at www.chabadofchesterfield.com.

“They bring the party and we bring the sukkah,” Rubenfeld said.

For Debbie and Bruce Morosohk, building the sukkah is truly a St. Louis experience. The Creve Coeur couple started doing it a decade ago when they moved here from Denver. It came about largely because Bruce was tasked with making a sukkah for SMDS-RJA.

“He said, while we’re at it, let’s build one for us, too,” said Debbie Morosohk, who is director of education at Temple Israel.

She said the family, including the couple’s two teenage daughters, always enjoys going out into the woods at the back of their property to find branches for the sechach. The Morosohks make their frame of PVC pipe, a common material for sukkah building.

Some in the community have sought innovative alternatives to the traditional sukkah. Olivette residents Dave and Keri Simon are sukkah beginners who hoped to construct the temporary structure this year for the first time but the expense, the troubled economy and other factors forced a change in plans. Instead, the Congregation B’nai Amoona members chose to have a sukkah-like experience in their gazebo. Their children, ages 3 and 6, have already begun decorating it.

“The plans got put on the backburner but fortunately we can at least create a makeshift sukkah,” said Dave Simon, who runs a rock music school in the area. “We’ll do all the traditional things you’d do in a sukkah.”

He hopes to build or buy one next year.

“Sukkot’s always been a holiday that I grew up celebrating,” he said. “It’s really nice to reconnect with it again. I really kind of lost touch with it. This is our first year doing it so it’s really fun and exciting to pass that on to our kids.”